JUPITER, Fla. – They brought in some new guys who play with intensity, guys like Jace Peterson, Eric Young Jr. and Jonny Gomes.
They added confident, vocal veterans like Jason Grilli, A.J. Pierzynski and Gomes, guys who seem to have a calming influence on many of the impressionable young players while offering advice and sharing information.
And whether by design, luck or a combination of both, a majority of the busload of newcomers the Braves acquired this winter seem to be pleasant guys who are generally outgoing, or at least not sullen and/or encumbered by an air of entitlement.
But there’s another factor that’s contributed to what everyone who’s been around this team seems to agree is a more enthusiastic and upbeat attitude: Competition.
“It's added some energy in the clubhouse," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "It's a good atmosphere because there is competition. Competition is good.”
The Braves came came to camp with a half-dozen or so jobs up for grabs -- spots in the bullpen, lineup, on the bench and one in the starting rotation. And once they got to camp a few more spots became available, due to projected starting second baseman Alberto Callaspo arriving out of shape, and center fielder Melvin Upton (foot) and pitcher Mike Minor (shoulder) being sidelined early. Not to mention right fielder Nick Markakis recovering from December neck surgery to repair a herniated disc and uncertain for opening day.
(By the way, Gonzalez noted that Markakis has been a noticeable presence in the dugout during home games, something he’s not required to do while rehabbing.)
Now here we are, just over two weeks from opening day, and the Braves still have more than a dozen position players or pitchers in legitimate contention for spots in the starting rotation, the bullpen, on the bench and perhaps even the lineup.
Because while Peterson might have the inside track on the opening-day second base job and Young has established himself as the clear frontrunner for primary center-field duties until Upton returns, there still is time for that to change or at least for other players to push for possible part-time or platoon duties at those or other positions.
You might think a manager would prefer to have most or all this stuff hashed out before camp even begins, or at least by the midway point have only a couple of questions left to answer. But I’ve found that most managers prefer to have some indecision and jobs being contested during camp, mainly because of what Gonzalez said – it provides energy, a spark during what often becomes a tedious daily grind by the third or fourth week of spring training, when there are still a few weeks left before opening day.
And then when you add the fact that the team is coming off a disappointing sub-.500 season and traded away three of its top four hitters and lost two starting pitchers to freea agency … well, let’s just say the last thing many people involved with the team wanted was the status quo and no major changes in the lineup or positions being contested in spring training.
“It really is fun,” Gonzalez said of the ongoing position battles and the questions he and Braves officials face regarding opening-day roster configuration. “And what you want is for everybody to play well, and then make us make a tough decision.”
Before Thursday’s Grapefruit League game against the Marlins, Gonzalez went through the outfield and infield with us reporters, reeling off the names of those who’d be at each starting spot if spring training ended that day, and all those others who could still have a say in either a lineup spot or a bench job or platoon arrangement.
He purposefully made it an on-the-record conversation because, as Gonzalez put it, “These guys read stuff.” In other words, it was his way of telling plenty of candidates that some opening-day roster spots were still undecided, so: “OK, boys, let’s go.”
• Teheran, Wood go to minors: Instead of taking their regular rotation turns in Grapefruit League games, Braves projected opening-day starter Julio Teheran and No. 2 starter Alex Wood were to pitch in minor league games Friday and Saturday, respectively.
The reason's simple: The Braves still have a lot of pitchers competing for jobs in the rotation and bullpen, and Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell want to see those pitchers in more innings against major league teams, particularly the starters competing for those last two spots.
“It’s so we can be able to accommodate (Manny) Banuelos, (Chien-Ming) Wang, Wandy Rodriguez, (Eric) Stults…to kind of say, OK, here’s your chance,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not a big fan of having our (regular) starters pitch in minor league games because it seems like it never works. But you have to do it because we want to see those guys pitch up here (in Grapefruit League games).
"But I’m not a big fan. Usually those guys go down there and last about an inning and a third and get their ass spanked.”
The same goes for relievers: Gonzalez would prefer they get their innings in Grapefruit League games, but again, there aren’t enough innings to go around when he’s still evaluating a handful of pitchers for the final spots in the ‘pen. That’s why he sent closer Craig Kimbrel and veteran setup men Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson to pitch in a minor league camp game late in the week.
None was as sharp as he's been in major league games, and Gonzalez said Kimbrel hit veteran minor league outfielder Joe Benson in the head with a fastball, then quickly raced in to make sure he was OK. Kimbrel and the Braves were thankful that Benson was wearing one of the bigger, more heavily padded helmets that minor leaguers are required to wear.
• Let's close with one from James McMurtry, whose new "Complicated Game" album is probably the best I've heard this year. But this one of the master songwriter's many older gems.
"SIX-YEAR DROUGHT' by James McMurtry
For the way you used to be
Don't why I couldn't please you
You just never had much faith in me
There's fine dust in the tire ruts now
Along the old feed road
They're workin' on a six year drought
Just so you know I can pull my weight
I can hold my own
I can sling that blade all summer long
'Til the thistles fall
And the pasture's clear
And the work's all done for another year
I can hold my own The world was like a distant storm
I could feel it on the breeze
But it made so little difference here
Just a whisper in the trees
Mending fence for room and board Was mostly all I'd done
For I was still a prisoner here
The sucker rod on the windmill creaks
Now and then you hear a car
There's thunderheads across the southern sky
But they won't get this far
There's red ants by the graveyard gate
They're nearly all that moves
And they carry on despite this heat
I bet you'd tell me what that proves
There's fine dust in the tire ruts now
The creeks no longer run
But I am just a visitor here
The drought won't hurt me none